Texts: Luke 21:25-36; Jeremiah 33:14-16
1963 was the 100 year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing. That year King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” President Kennedy addressed the nation about why he sent the National Guard to help protect two black students at the University of Alabama. There was the March on Washington with its “I have a dream speech,” the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killing four black girls. President Kennedy was assassinated. And, in 1963, African American writer James Baldwin wrote an essay, addressed to his 15 year old nephew, trying to explain why so many white folks were responding to all this with such fear.
To his teenage nephew, coming of age in this world, Baldwin writes this:
“Try to imagine how you would feel, if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.” — from The Fire Next Time.
I don’t know if James Baldwin had Luke’s gospel open as he wrote, but his words echo those of Jesus.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Luke 21:25-26
Jesus speaks these words having just been in the temple – that solid, fixed star in the life of his beloved people. The place where the symbols of cosmic meaning were etched in stone, enacted through ritual. Where earth touched heaven.
Luke is almost certainly writing his gospel after 70CE, the year the Romans destroyed the temple. These words of Jesus speak into this time of disorientation and upheaval. “Not one stone left upon another,” Jesus had said earlier. “The powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
When what you thought was solid and fixed moves out of place, then what? When the unshakeable is shaken, where does that leave you and your little life?
2018 is not yet over, but on the church calendar, this is day one of a new liturgical year. Without fail, I’m always a bit taken aback that these are the words and images to begin Advent. They are startling, especially when one is expecting tidings of comfort and joy. I’m yet to see a Hallmark card with the greeting: “May your season be filled with fear and foreboding for what is coming upon the world”…flip to the inside…”for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” If you’re still looking for a tagline for your family holiday cards, it’s not too late.
How to greet these words that beckon us into this new season? Especially when they sound eerily close to summarizing the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Is this a meltdown? An unravelling?
A shake up? A shakedown?
A crash? A market correction?
Jesus’ words are by no means a direct forecast of our present predicament, but apparently there are some common themes that connect 70CE, 1963, and 2018CE: Disorientation, loss, grief, confusion, fear. Solid things coming undone. Has there ever been a year free from these realities? A month? A day?
The turbulence gets all the press, but there’s more going on here. Look closer, for a storyline that takes a lot more careful attention to notice. Breathe. Pay attention.
Luke 21:27: “Then they will see the Human One coming in a cloud with power.”
They’re the words of Jesus, but the imagery is borrowed. Daniel had been the first to imagine this. Daniel, as in Daniel and the Lion’s den. Daniel the interpreter of dreams. The dreams of bewildered emperors seeking council. Daniel who himself became a dreamer. Who, one night, dreamed of horrible beasts destroying and conquering and taking their stand as rulers of the earth – each one corresponding to an empire that had harassed and oppressed his people. Babylon, Persia, Greece. Daniel who said I have a dream that one day, despite these beasts of empire, one day a Human One will come as if on the clouds, and rule humanly, such that all humanity and all creation will thrive and flourish.
Jesus evokes Daniel’s dream, and follows it up by saying, “Now when you see these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Redemption. Healing. Wholeness. A proclamation of emancipation. Making right what has gone wrong. If that’s what’s coming upon us, it’s worth paying attention. But where to look amidst the rubble of late capitalism and post-industrial data-driven society? What does redemption sound like? Taste like? If redemption had a smell, how would it fill the air?
“There will be signs.” That’s how Jesus introduces this whole sequence. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth.”
It’s a good thing he included that last bit about “on the earth.” The sun, moon, and stars are out there, a whole other scale. But we live on the earth. We walk on the earth. If there are going to be signs, we need some earth bound signs. Signs that might show up on a daily walk around the block. Signs that might come out in conversation with a neighbor. Signs that might show up at home, doing the kind of work that keeps a home going. Signs that speak our language, or at least live in the neighborhood.
And here’s a glimpse of what that might be: The primary sign Jesus points to is “the fig tree and all the trees.” This affirms a conclusion I too have reached in my adult years. When in doubt, consult with a tree. They’ll tell you what you need to know. Even the prophet Jeremiah, when speaking of a redemption yet to come, can’t help but reference a tree: “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and it/he/she shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jer 34:15)
This is how Luke tells it: “Then Jesus told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kin-dom of God is near.’”
“These things” seems to be referring to the disorientation, loss, confusion, and fear already mentioned. But now there’s more going on, if you’re willing to pay attention. “These things,” these signs, also point to the message of the trees, who were here long before us, and have been faithfully providing for us ever since we dismounted from their righteous branches and started walking around this wondrous earth, seeing what we could do with flint and fire, iron and oil.
When the tree shows the slightest sprouting of green, it’s a sign. Something is growing. Summer is coming. That’s a sign even children can read. You don’t have to be able to read to notice that sign. We’re skilled at noticing signs of things falling apart. It takes a particular way of seeing to notice signs of summer, signs that point to the coming of the Human One. Signs that say “Redemption is near at hand.”
Our theme this Advent is “Do you sense what I sense?” We’ll be using all our senses to pay attention. Since Advent moves us toward the birth of Jesus, a baby born in a small village to an insignificant couple, it’s OK to think small. It’s OK if the taste of something delightful around the table is a small sign that there is indeed cause for delight. Or if the smell of something in the air is the smallest sign that you share breath with all the creatures of this world. We’re not trying to shake the heavens and move the foundations of the cosmos here. That’s already underway. We know all about that. That’s what so often causes us to shut down our senses. Hunker down. Guard our brains against the onslaught. And that’s OK too. These are fearful times. We must take care of ourselves.
And as we take care of ourselves, we will open our senses to the message of the trees. The slightest greenery, the smallest bud, the babe in Bethlehem — a sign. Can you see it? Do you hear it? If someone served it to you, would you let yourself taste and enjoy it? Savor it on your tongue and feel it slide warm down your throat. Know that it will find its way into your blood and stream through your body, each cell renewed for another day.
I sense fear and foreboding giving way to calm delight. I can’t guarantee the outcome, but I can smell it brewing. It’s a season when we must trust the senses of children whose joy is itself a sign. Calling all nephews, nieces, grandchildren, Mary’s child amidst the animals – to point us toward redemption.
James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew suggests that what is fearful news for some – the crumbling of things that held up the universe – is liberating news for others – the shaking loose of the old order. The possibility of something new coming into being right in front of our eyes.
So it is with the entry of Jesus into this world.
“Now when you see these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”